Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

26 04 2010

I read Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker in anticipation of a trip to Seattle. Even though my Vancouver is still largely unexplored, my LP and I wanted to get out of the city and see something a bit different. Seattle promised good coffee, fascinating underground passageways, and, most importantly, the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. With the Canadian dollar near parity, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to track down books I’d been having a rough time finding for my project.

(I wasn’t disappointed. Between trips to the Pike Place Market, the SFM, and a tour of Seattle’s underground, I tracked down Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles, Mystery and Mayhem, Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite, James Tiptree Jr.’s Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, and Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon).

Like many cities, Seattle suffered a devastating fire in the 1800s. Seattle was a lumber town and as such, the original downtown was largely made of wood. After the fire, city officials decided that all future buildings must be made of fire-proof materials, and that the downtown streets, which had been built on a filled-in swamp and were prone to flooding, would be re-graded about a story higher.

The rebuilding of the streets was not a speedy project. It was inconceivable to shut down the city’s entire downtown core for the thirty years or so that the project would take, so the city did its best to work around existing businesses. Shop-owners opened their doors at the historic ground level, while workers built the new roads between high concrete retaining walls. To cross the street, residents had to climb wooden ladders up over the streets and down the other sides. When the streets were finished, the city built sidewalks, inlaid with glass skylights, over the now-underground streets and businesses began to move above ground. Pedestrians, however, continued to use the underground until 1907, when it was condemned because filthy and full of rats, it was the breeding ground for plague which was spreading throughout the city.

Now, visitors can tour the underground, and it has inspired plenty of eerie and fantastic tales. Much of the action in Boneshaker takes place in its dark, convenient passageways.

Boneshaker is a work of Steampunk*, which is a sub-genre of SF that has recently come to prominence. In some ways it is a way of reviving the heroes of the age of imperialism, the Extraordinary Gentleman and their un-named, but equally “enlightened” compatriots, and sending them on nostalgic adventures through an alternative modernity of clockwork and airships, promoting ideas that have long exceeded their best-before dates. I read Jules Verne’s Le tour du monde en 80 jours at age seven with pure joy and fascination. What spirit, what determination, what Da Vinci-esque genius it took to invent wonderful machines and to pilot them around the world! But Verne’s ideas, his wonderful speculations, are the insights of the past. They teach us where we have come from, but no longer predict where we are going.

Since Verne’s time, technology has advanced, and hard-fought human-rights battles have complicated stories of adventure and discovery considerably. Steampunk, with its alternate history and its mad-scientist engineering, allows us to play in that gold-tinged adventure-world of yore, transforming the negative effects of the industrial revolution with its wonderful machines and the age of exploration with its treasures brought from afar on the lower-classes and on colonized peoples into a romantic aesthetic, and addressing issues of class, race, and gender only when expedient. It lets us ratchet the clock back, leaving our current social consciousness behind in the 21st century as we explore the 19th through nostalgia-tinged goggles. Steampunk is to the 19th century as Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie is to the Paris I grew up in.

In Boneshaker, we meet Briar Wilkes, whose husband Leviticus Blue, a mad inventor, built a machine that could mine gold from Alaska’s ice, padding the pockets of greedy Russian prospectors. Blue’s premature test of the Boneshaker machine has released a thick, yellow gas from the bowels of the earth. Anyone who breathes in this gas becomes the living dead, ever hungering for the flesh of the living. In response to this, the citizens of Seattle have built a near-impenetrable wall around the city’s core to contain the blight, and a life of poverty and misery continues in its outskirts. Ashamed that her now-dead husband brought about the destruction of the city, Briar avoids speaking of him if at all possible. This proves to have been a bad decision, when her teenaged son Ezekiel, sick of poverty and humiliation, sets out for the blighted city to resuscitate his father’s reputation.

Briar, knowing full-well what Zeke will find inside the city walls, cannot let him go to his death alone. She sets out after him, to catch him and bright him back to safety outside of the dank and filthy walls of downtown Seattle. Therein lies the plot of the story: Zeke runs off, Briar follows, they both meet quirky companions, some of whom are Good, some of whom are Evil, the GM rolls the dice and the story advances. There’s action, there are zombies, there are lengthy descriptions of unlikely steam-powered machines (Da Vinci’s machines were wonderful, but how few of them actually worked!), there are excuses to wear gas masks, and whenever Zeke or Briar faces a challenge, there is deus ex machina in a quirky Steamborg with just the right skills to save the day.

Boneshaker isn’t a bad book. Though the action is slow at first, it gains intensity as Zeke uncovers his family’s history and Briar’s quest leads her toward her son. But it is riddled with inconsistencies, rife with unexplained technologies that could not possibly work, and altogether uncritical in its approach to the material it tackles. Boneshaker is play, a dollhouse world populated by the tropes of yore, and having read it, I can’t say more than that it kept me mildly entertained for a few hours. I have yet to read any of the other books on this year’s Hugo ballot, but I do hope that they are stronger than this one, because if this one wins, it is a sad year for SF indeed.

* This is my still-in-development understanding of Steampunk based on the books and movies in the genre I have read and seen so far. I would be happy to be persuaded otherwise.